So.  The photograph of Pope Francis blessing a disfigured man is making its way around the internet.  The Huffington Post described it as “a picture worth a thousand words”.  Is any image in the modern world worth a thousand words, or even one word?  We are inundated and overwhelmed with images which are often little more than hot-air, and sometimes, perhaps even a good deal of the time, are outright lies.  The picture of Pope Francis embracing this man is both disturbing and touching.  One of the myriad blogs says something like “I can barely bring myself to look, never mind touch.”

The Gospel says, “Stop judging by appearances” (John 7:24).  That is an important message, and we should of course overcome our natural repellence at certain things (though that is not to say there is not a good reason for it – for example the avoidance of disease).  But, in my limited experience, this is much easier to do in real life, and much more important.  Images show the horror (or the beauty) without really showing or telling us anything about the person who is the ultimate subject.  And what do we know about this poor man who is now being used to demonstrate how good, how Christ-like, the Bishop of Rome is?  Is he a human being at all, or just a walking bunch of boils – which is what the touting of this image reduces him to?  The trouble is by making this picture all about the Pope, we really are missing the point.  Let’s just contrast it a bit with the Gospel: Jesus often touches those whom others will not.  In the case of lepers, this was quite sensible: not much use to lepers if everyone in a community ends up with leprosy.  In other cases it was to preserve ritual purity.  But, when Jesus touches such people he is not bringing some wet “touch of love”, it is an act of power.  He is curing them, he is taking decisive action.  That is the first difference.  The second difference is in those who witness it, and those who receive his touch.  In the Gospels, the authors are usually very keen to tell us about the people who are healed: about their illness, what it was, how long they had it, and then about their reaction, their response to Jesus who healed them.  Those who are healed are real, they are not ciphers who exist only to tell us something about Jesus (though, of course, they do that as well).  The third contrast is the public nature of this touching.  I would go so far as to say Pope Francis engages quite deliberately in public acts of this kind.  This again is quite alien to the Gospel: Jesus asks that those he heals keep the secret (Mark 1:44), and will not allow demons to speak because they know him (1:34) to such an extent that he receives sharp criticism from his relatives (John 7:4) for “working in secret”.  In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is pretty plain about how his disciples should carry out charitable work: “Do not let you left hand know what your right hand is doing” (and let’s not make a mistake: the Pope is Christ’s disciple, not Christ himself).  Overall, the Gospel does not approve of public shows of goodness – whether they are of charity, humbleness or whatever.

I do not at all question Pope Francis’s good motives, or indeed that it is good to welcome and to touch those who society often sidelines.  Nevertheless, I think that it is important to ensure that it is done as quietly, unobtrusively, unfussily as possible – that is an important Gospel principle, and applies to private prayer, too.  This is the great difficulty I have, I think, with modern Catholic attitudes: we want to play up all this charitable stuff, make it a big public event, as if it is the most important thing we do; the same with personal prayer – it is an ‘event’ which has become disproportionately public.  Now, charity is important.  But the most important thing we do is worship God.  And we want to play that down, minimise it, make sure it is done unobtrusively and without splendour.  This seems to me all the wrong way round: Jesus wants us to do charity, agape, love in secret; he wants our personal prayer to be secret, but what is never suggested in the Gospel is that the public worship of God should be curtailed or hidden away or replaced by public acts of kindness or spontaneous personal prayer.

Throwing Stones

When a Pope acts or speaks, even without using the ultimate authority of his office, it is like a stone thrown into a pool.

The immediate impact area of the stone - in this case the formal teaching of the Roman Catholic Church – may be unaffected, but the reverberations go out from the centre, often growing in size and intensity.  This was true of Pope Benedict’s traditionist approach to the Liturgy, Church history and to a certain extent theology (though, of course, he did not set-out to “do theology” as Pope I don’t think).

It is now true of the “modernism” of Francis (if I may use that expression without prejudice).  As many of the uncatholic Catholics – such as Piero Marini – have noted, it is like a new wind blowing through the Church.  They call it “fresh”, I prefer “fetid”, but we should not argue over semantics.  Only the Pollyannas, the Emperors with new clothes, can possibly disagree.  There is a distinctly different mood in the Church of today than the Church of November 2012.  The thing is, that the moderately discomforting comments of Francis, amplified (most Catholics – even most Catholic priests don’t get their news from the blogs) by the media, become a justifier for all kinds of mad, untraditional thinking among the masses of Catholics, priests and even Bishops’ Conferences.

We might argue (reasonably enough) that Francis himself is orthodox, hasn’t said anything directly in opposition to the Church’s teaching and tradition, hasn’t changed anything.  But that is to totally miss the point of the Franciscan pontificate.  Francis is not especially interested in “official” channels; the point of his talks, his appearances and actions, is (as well as being a genuine manifestation of his personality) about mood-music.  He is saying by his actions, “This is the tone – sing with it!”

Truly Terrifying

For all the hoo-ha about Pope Francis, I wonder how much attention we should pay to those now advising him.  The other day Cardinal Pell was telling us how much nonsense Archbishop Fellay’s denouncement of the Pope’s modernism is.  Today, I have just spent the last half an hour reading this, from another of Francis’s so-called C-8.  Don’t get me wrong, Cardinal Maradiaga seems very affable.  But this long speech just goes to show that Pell is either wrong, or trying to put a positive spin on the problem, or doesn’t understand what is going on, or isn’t really much in touch with Pope Francis’s thinking (I wonder how good Cardinal Pell’s Italian is..?), or has been told one thing, while Maradiaga another.  Which ever, both can’t be right – on the one hand that the Pope is not a modernist, on the other that Vatican II rehabilitated modernism and so even if he was it’s a-ok.


As for the text reproduced by Palmo, it is quite terrifying.  I mean, really read it and let it sink in.  It is essentially Protestant: even unobservant readers will discern as much.  It may well quote Catholic documents (though, note, only those of Vatican II and its Papal sequels), but it could hardly be said to ring with Catholic truth.  It is a horrific mutilation: nearly all that was before was somehow tainted for at least “hundreds of years” (probably about nineteen hundred, if we take the rest of what he says seriously).  Then there is the horrible naiveté: the age of Pope Francis has come! A Golden Age: “a missionary movement for the conversion of culture, propitiating and multiplying the signs of growth, of great vigor and hope”.  Even if this were not hopelessly optimistic – conversion to what? hope for what? growth into what?  I invite you to read it.  Read it all, and carefully.  Then do come back and tell me I am wrong, that the one tipped as the closest in thought and attitude to Pope Francis, isn’t a Protestant.

Give me that old-time magisterium

I draw the attention of readers to this interesting entry from Sandro Magister’s Chiesa.  In particular, to the piece by Professor Pietro De Marco, towards the bottom.  It is a very insightful look at the problems of Pope Francis’s “new style”, it picks up in an erudite way on some of the issues I feel myself and have written about on this blog.

For myself, I would be very happy if there were no more interviews by Popes for the next 100 years.  It wasn’t really a feature of the papacy until Pope Benedict (despite a recent and somewhat desperate attempt to prove otherwise at CNA); but he was trustworthy and could be relied upon to read the proofs thoroughly before approving any publication; and even then he didn’t go ringing up journalists for a chat.  I mean, Pope Francis is working so hard he doesn’t have time to attend musical concerts, but he can make space in his diary for two massive interviews (which really haven’t added much of anything to anything)?  These interviews aren’t whatever we may think, the real work of the Pope.  Neither are his homilies in Santa Marta.  A Pope has to govern, and it is really important that he doesn’t do things which others can do.  I think its called subsidiarity.

I know Pope St. Pius X used to preach every Sunday, I know he kept his own pectoral cross, I know he was from a genuinely poor background (actually, Francis isn’t).  But I think this may be what made him so determined to restore Christ to the centre: the poor do not need jumbled, disorganised religion which risks their salvation on a fashionable turn-of-phrase.

For myself, I would be very glad to return to the old-fashioned way of hearing about what Popes think, some old-time magisterium, thank you very much.

My conscience

There has been a lot of talk about conscience recently, what it is and what it means, how we know whether we’re acting on or just going after our own ideas.  It’s not something I worry about too much, in general I know when I act against my conscience, and when I am following it.  I try to form my conscience along with the saints, doctors and fathers, to be a “son of the Church”, with God’s grace to think and act in “good conscience”.

Today I had the most powerful experience of conscience rising up against me and telling me, shouting at me, to do something.  I can’t explain what it was, because that would also go against my conscience (and a Gospel principle directly from our Lord), but it was strong enough for me to turn around and retrace my steps (quite literally) and do the thing I knew was required of me.

Reflecting on the experience afterward, and because of the kind of thing I had to do, I wondered whether it wasn’t something to do with our new Holy Father.  I am rather bookish and find it difficult, normally, to apply my faith in practical situations.  Perhaps the Pope’s conviction that faith has to be open to radical departures from our regular ideas about things, is having an effect on me.


The Rule of St Benedict has something helpful to say on almost every subject.  It is remarkable in its applicability not because it is vague but because it is precise and well-organised.  In the second chapter, Benedict describes what the Abbot must be.  Let’s be certain: he doesn’t talk about the character of the Abbot, or his psychology.  On the contrary, he speaks theologically.

To be worthy of the task of governing a monastery, the abbot must always remember what his title signifies and act as a superior should.  He is believed to hold the place of Christ in the monastery, since he is addressed by a title of Christ, as the Apostle indicates: You have received the spirit of adoption of sons by which we exclaim, abba, father.  Therefore, the abbot must never teach or decree or command anything that would deviate from the Lord’s instructions.  On the contrary, everything he teaches and commands should, like the leaven of divine justice, permeate the minds of his disciples.  Let the abbot always remember that at the fearful judgment of God, not only his teaching but also his disciples’ obedience will come under scrutiny.  The abbot must, therefore, be aware that the shepherd will bear the blame wherever the father of the household finds that the sheep have yielded no profit.  Still, if he has faithfully shepherded a restive and disobedient flock, always striving to cure their unhealthy ways, it will be otherwise:  the shepherd will be acquitted at the Lord’s judgment. Then, like the Prophet, he may say to the Lord: I have not hidden your justice in my heart; I have proclaimed your truth and your salvation, but they spurned and rejected me.  Then at last the sheep that have rebelled against his care will be punished by the overwhelming power of death.

Furthermore, anyone who receives the name of abbot is to lead his disciples by a twofold teaching: he must point out to them all that is good and holy more by example than by words, proposing the commandments of the Lord to receptive disciples with words, but demonstrating God’s instructions to the stubborn and the dull by a living example.

For me, this might go for anyone who stands in Christ’s place to us, be it parish priest, bishop or pope.  I don’t suggest this as some sort of judgement criteria; I’m not at all saying if a priest doesn’t quite seem to be this kind of father we immediately start to criticise or complain.  On the contrary, St Benedict specifically wishes to root-out such a mentality, and as St. Ignatius says, we should be “more willing to “approve and to praise” lest we cause more “murmuring than profit”.  At the same time, it is not an invitation to blind obedience, which St Benedict does not envisage.  Indeed, what is at the heart of Benedict’s vision of a peaceful monastery (applicable to the parish, diocese or entire Church) is mutual obedience under Christ.  It is always Jesus himself who is the central reference point.  And in this way, he is “all in all”.  The practice of this obedience, of our superiors to Christ, of us to them, of us to Christ, of ourselves to one another, is complicated and not easy to make a living thing as opposed to a dead letter or a sort of automatic response (I don’t say building the habit of obedience is a bad thing, but this is precisely not ‘automatic’).

Sometimes we make errors: I think for example that fear will often be at the root of disobedience, or murmuring against a superior.  For me, this is certainly true.  I am one who likes security, and that isn’t necessarily bad.  But it can mean if I am asked to think or behave outside my usual paradigms, it is very difficult for me.  For example, I was much happier with Archbishop Müller’s interview, than Pope Francis’s – because he talks in a way I relate to, he uses words I know and like, he is theological in a Ratzingarian way.

But there is something alive about Pope Francis too, even if it is quite frightening at times.  I suppose Jesus might have been a bit like that too.  How often did the disciples think to themselves: “What will he do next?”  I imagine, reading the Gospels, pretty much every day.

Benedict, in common with us

In common with many of us, it appears that Pope Benedict has felt the “wound” of the new Papacy: specifically in relation to his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum.  I draw the reader’s attention to this post, and also to this.  Whether it means anything is, I think, anybody’s guess.  But no one can really deny, unless they are a total pollyanna (and I realise there are a few about), that it is troubling.

Francis: Medjugorje negative?

I may have to change my views about Pope Francis if this report turns out to have any truth in it.

If he really does say “NO” to the Medjugorje phenomenon, such an act of courage (for make no mistake how pervasive the Medjugorje influence is in the Church) would make me eat my words.  Well, some of them.

Edit: A “pingback” to this post has appeared in Fr. Zuhlsdorf’s comments; I confess I don’t know how they work so its appearance is unintentional.  I discovered this because there were suddenly many hundreds of visitors (no doubt disappointed ones, most of them, as this post adds zero to what the good Father has on his blog).  I mostly write this blog as a personal exercise and didn’t intend to self-publicise in this way.  I hope that readers will therefore feel free to critique what they find here, should they wish to, in the spirit of open and frank dialogue.  That I am a Medjugorje sceptic should be in no doubt, however.

The most serious evils

There is a truly horrific and appalling story on the BBC website about a Belgian woman who underwent three sex-change operations, only to find herself alienated by her pseudo-male body.  She was “helped to die” (the article also describes this as “put to death”, a much more apposite description) to end her “psychological suffering”.

There is so much to say about this, it is hard to know where to start or end, so I will restrict myself.  In the first place, it is obscene that this woman was permitted to have the operations: even from the brief article on the BBC it seems that there were deep-seated psychological problems stemming from childhood rejection.  Of course, I believe that all transsexuality is rooted in psychological dissonance which cannot be resolved by recourse to biological solutions, but then I am no expert; I merely tend to think that a physical body is a given, and therefore all things being equal, the marker by which gender (sex) can principally be determined.  Secondly, how horrific it is that someone should end their life in suicide wickedly assisted by physicians who should be concerned with healing.  The third horror from the story is that over 1400 people were killed by this method in Belgium last year and that the Belgian parliament is giving consideration to extending the possibility to those under the age of 18.  I wonder how a country with a largely Catholic population, which defied German imperialism and Nazi ideology, has come to this impasse?  Without exaggeration I believe it is the work of Satan (with the co-operation, quite possibly, of Cardinal Daneels).

But also, on reading this, I was struck by the contrast it provides with Pope Francis’s recent comments that the gravest evils of modern society are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old.  Indeed, these are evils; but they are not the gravest, dear Holy Father, when horrors like the one reported above cause barely a ripple in the news of Europe.

The real crisis of Francis

Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical confirms him as a man of humour, warmth, humility and compassion, eager to share the love that God “lavishes” on humanity and display it as the answer to the world’s deepest needs… He has produced a profound, lucid, poignant and at times witty discussion of the relationship between sexual love and the love of God, the fruit no doubt of a lifetime’s meditation. This is a document that presents the most attractive face of the Catholic faith and could be put without hesitation into the hands of any inquirer.

This from the Tablet, in 2006.  Let us be clear: Pope Francis isn’t the first and wont be the last Catholic teacher to put love, mercy and joy at the centre of the proclamation of Christian faith.  He isn’t, either, the first Pope to get plaudits from the press for doing it.  Hans Kung gave early-Benedict rave reviews.  Even the British newspapers, The Times and The Guardian were similarly effusive.

That is because, for a moment, the world was able to glimpse the true Josef Ratzinger, who was also Pope Benedict XVI.  Normally, the world is so caught up in its own caricatures, in bed with its straw-men, that it doesn’t give space to what is real.  This is all over the place, not just with the Church.  In the case of the Church, however, it uses the caricature to poison perceptions of Christianity; the world hates the Church – for it first hated her Divine founder.  But just for a while, a chink opened and people actually did read and take in what Benedict had been saying, as Pope, as Cardinal.  Why that chink closed again is anybody’s guess.  But as for me, I do believe that the forces of evil, whether you say “Satan” hardly seems to be the point, are at work in the world.

I don’t say that a similar thing is happening now, because Pope Francis is himself being set-up as a caricature by the press and the world.  He is jolly and avuncular and cuddly – except to those nasty people in the Vatican, or those horrible old-fashioned traditionalists, of course.  He is going to make the Church nice, a bit more acceptable, a bit more Anglican.  Isn’t it all just too lovely.

The difference is, that Francis has participated in creating this phantasm.  Whereas, upon discovering the “real” Benedict XVI people were surprised, even, delighted, to find him kind, gentle, humble, humorous, compassionate, profound, and intelligent, what will people find when they discover the real Francis?  We already know how good he is – he has already shown (including an additional camera to follow the intimate kissings and huggings more closely) and told us (as he said to Scalfari: “I have the humility…”).  His humbility, his jokes, his mercifulness, have all been on-show from day zero.  Is this the real Pope Francis?  When we scratch the surface what do we find? Is there not an undercurrent of authoritarianism?  A lack of gentlemanliness (for example the matter of bouquet of rosaries or the failure to attend a musical concert for the Year of Faith), and a misdirected strong-mindedness (for example the way of dealing with the Franciscans of the Immaculate)?  A man who views conscience as nothing more than each one’s idea of what is good or evil, yet who is determinedly willed to stamp his own views on the entire Church?  Perhaps this is a cultural issue, but beneath the baby-kissing and disabled-hugging, does he seem somewhat hubristic, overly self-assured? This is all coated in a varnish of humility: second hand cars (to replace existing ones), carrying his own briefcase (rejecting the service of another), wearing shoes made in Argentina (if he can’t find a decent shoe-shop in Rome he just isn’t looking), kissing the feet of women and Muslims (despite being a “son of the Church” which imagines the Holy Thursday rite quite differently in both its outward expression and its deep inner meaning).

If that is what we find, it stands in severe contrast to his predecessor, who sought to reimagine the papacy in continuity with the Church’s tradition, and as something apart from the one who occupies it.  Those who value the Church’s tradition and teaching will not take to him because they value the papacy precisely as an office which though exercised personally (as de Lubac and others expressed in the light of the Council so well) is not entirely synonymous with the person of the Pope himself.   The scramble to canonise Pope John XXIII, as good and unliberal as he was, also makes my point: he is tokenistic to supporters of the “opening” which has caused so much horror in the Church, but the waiving of certain conditions normal to canonisation has not been, in his case, at the will of the whole People of God (as Francis would like to say), as was the case with St Pius X or Blessed John Paul II, but is based in the decided will of a Pope who happens to share his views on openness to modernity (if very little else).

Francis’s discourses are untidy, illogical and vague, his off-the-cuff remarks often make no sense whatever; but this is only part of the problem.  It seems to me there is a certain sophistry involved too: “Dear Mr Scalfari: I am not trying the convert you!  But whether you like it or not, you have a soul, and your spark of divine light will end up God’s when his light is all in everyone!”  Apart from being Gnostic nonsense, this totally disregards his interlocutor’s avowed atheism.  As Benedict XVI was always pointing out, dialogue is predicated on mutual respect and understanding.  You must be honest: for a Catholic Pope to say he has no interest in converting an atheist (and if not, why not?) but then to go on to tell him that whether he likes it or not he has a divine spark and it will be reunited with God, demonstrates a certain intellectual dishonesty and disrespect for the other.  It will certainly not result in their conversion or return to faith.  The point-blank honesty of Ratzinger in his interviews with Peter Seewald is the perfect evidence that an approach which engages in a Platonic-Socratic way, rather than a sophistical one, is the kind which bears fruit.  Take also the dialogue with Islam: Pope Benedict achieved a more honest and fruitful dialogue there than could be possible when one simply acquiesces to the blatantly false premise that in essence there is not much to draw between Catholic Christian and Islamic concepts of God.  But we have reverted, with Pope Francis, to the latter position.

I do not say any of this in particular affects his ability to be Pope, of course; though it may be that his ability to function as pope is limited by it .  But he is, whether he likes it or not, responsible for the peace of the Catholic world.  And this requires as well a humble submission by him to the office, and to the Tradition of the Church, in particular if the human qualities are not up to the task.

The real problem with Pope Francis seems to me to be he does not see the world or the Church as it is.  He thinks the Lord will do all the legwork, if we only tell people how we love them and how God loves them.  Of course, there are three ways in which this is insufficient: primarily, it is seen as license, for example several ‘progressive’ groups took him up, posting ‘thank yous’ on Facebook etc.  Meanwhile, it does not generate genuine sympathy for the Church or the Christian faith: the comments of individuals under these ‘thank you’ images, revealed very clearly that, in fact, the hatred for Catholicism remained in the vast majority of commenters.  And thridly, God gave us the intellect and more importantly the reason, and he expects us to use them: we should do so “in and out of season”, always “ready to give an account” of our faith.

Discernment means first of all seeing things as they are and not how one might wish they are. And the reality is that for a huge number of people Catholicism is not only anachronistic, it is evil.   It suppresses ‘love’, sexual rights, and so forth. It is cited as a cause of depression, crime, violence and civic strife. It holds back the human race from development, and it tries to stop science bettering the human lot. Its history is full of oppression, murder, hypocrisy and greed. It tortured and murdered thousands of innocent people. It enslaved the native peoples of dozens of countries in imperialistic conquest. Even its founding principles, its founder himself, are called into question. And above all, “I never asked anyone to die for me.” Discernment means realising that tip-toeing towards people with such deeply-set and convinced antipathy or hatred is not going to bring them onside. Even a whole-sale sell-out of the catholic faith to their convictions does not achieve that, it merely confirms what they knew all along: our faith is nothing, it can be exchanged for cheap brass anytime, so how can it have ever been valuable? And more, how can these idiots have believed in something worth so much nothing? But even that is not the end, because once you have put into a waste-skip and burned everything you once had to offer, those who do still come to your store, find that the shelves are empty and there is no food.  This devaluing is the grave danger of modernity: the dilution which ends in dissolution.  For if the faith is not the greatest treasure we can obtain, if it is not the “pearl of great price” men and women can hardly be expected to sell everything (which is required) to purchase it.

The trouble in our time is that the Church is internally weakened, has lost the courage of her convictions, she wants to be loved by the world. Discernment means accepting that those days, if they ever really existed, are gone. Pope Benedict seemed to recognise that because of this, the need of the Church, and so ultimately the need of the world, is a strengthening of faith, a reinvigoration of Catholic ‘identity’, a new evangelisation not only directed outwards, but inwards as well.   A call to remember who you are as a Catholic Christian, remember the great gifts of faith, remember that if there has been evil in the history of the Christian world, there has been and still is so much more good – a great trail of light running throughout history and spreading out even in the modern world. Have confidence in what you have experienced! And of course, it is this which is the ‘leaven’, which we can take out with us “to the peripheries”. If I do not have this, what am I bringing? Myself? Well I am nothing – just a sinner like anyone. But if I have this faith, this Jesus, to offer, then he has everything that is needed.

If there is are good things about Francis, it is when he talks about the power of evil, about the Lord who has overcome it, about trusting Jesus, entrusting ourselves to our Lady, about spending time before the Lord present in the Eucharist. Because Jesus is found in the upper room, as well as on the road.  But all that is good in his speeches and homilies is being overwhelmed by what is negative.  Some of what he says even seems to verge on the heretical.  Pray, and fast – and, of course, the Lord has promised that the gates of hell shall not prevail, so a few old cardinals and popes definitely can’t mess things up entirely.  Can they?